No half-and-half affair

Asked for his opinion of ‘Old Bunyard’s Philosophick Fables’, a psychology professor recently offered a compliment and some suggestions before remarking that he was unconvinced that there were clear neuroscience lessons to be learned. Since this contains a grain of truth, but no more than that, I think a short explanation might help to forestall any false expectations.

The book started life back in 2001 when my professional work was entirely rooted in psychology, particularly in the fields of behavioural psychology and heuristics & biases. After 2005, however, my work started to take on a neuroscientific flavor, with neuroscience eventually becoming my primary interest. If you’re not clear about the difference, think of psychology as the science of what we perceive, believe and seek to do, and neuroscience as the study of the underlying neural mechanisms. The shift of emphasis I underwent was akin to a medic transferring his interest from the symptoms of disease to the underlying microbiology: the two are essentially the same thing, but at different levels. One of neuroscience’s key challenges, as the younger science, is to identify the “neural correlates” that underlie the phenomena already identified by psychologists, and understanding the one certainly helps one’s appreciation of the other.

One benefit of being obliged to read lots of neuroscientific papers was that I was incidentally alerted to previously unfamiliar topics in psychology, some of which inevitably found their way into the book. For example, reading an excellent paper about the complex mechanics of neural firings led me into the psychological concept of Confirmation Bias, which hitherto had been little more to me than a name. When it came to writing the references for each of the topics of the Fables, I generally chose in such instances to include a psychology reference rather than a neuroscience one, because the former would inevitably be far less technical and jargon-packed, and hence more accessible to the general reader. If you don’t know the difference between ‘occipital’ and ‘dorsal’, or between an ‘action potential’ and a ‘synaptic gap’, or between the ventro-medial pre-frontal cortex and a frying-pan, a neuroscience paper will be extremely hard work.

For this reason, I was careful in the book’s Foreword to mention “psychological study” and then “modern brain-science” but not neuroscience, so as not to give the impression that it was a half-and-half matter. Only in the Author’s Note does neuroscience get a mention, where it states that my aim is to “stimulate an interest in psychology and neuroscience alike” – which I as the author naturally consider a possibility with the Fables and their references precisely as they stand. Nowhere does the book promise specifically neuroscientific lessons, even though there are some.

Now, you will find in the online publicity the statement “Each one of these delightfully original animal fables communicates a lesson from psychology or neuroscience in an accessible form”, which might be what prompted the professor’s comment, insofar as you could conceivably construe it to mean “half and half”. In truth, the statement had to have the words “or neuroscience” included because of the existence of Fables such as the 26th, ‘The Expectant Seal’, the 65th, ‘The Eel & The Wrasse’, and the 68th, ‘The Ungrateful Gannet’, whose references are quite specifically neuroscientific. Given all this, I think there is no reason to fear that the book under-delivers against its aims. On the contrary, I’m hopeful that, like me, anyone interested to know more will be driven to look up for themselves what we know about the neural correlates of any particular psychological phenomenon. And, where these are still unknown, then who can say: maybe it’ll spark the imagination of some budding neuroscientists of the future?

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